George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem is currently adorning the National’s Olivier stage, a 1707 Restoration comedy directed by Simon Godwin and set in Lichfield, Staffordshire, a provincial town where two young fortune hunters, Archer and Aimwell, arrive in order to seek rich wives. Set in both a country inn and a provincial house, it has a warmth and humour that is brought out in this production to great effect.
Patrick Marber has been brought in as dramaturg on this production, and it shows, in the slightly updated sparkling dialogue and the hugely entertaining, knowing musical interludes. This is a long play, but the time passes relatively quickly. Samuel Barnett as Aimwell and Geoffrey Streatfeild as Archer prove a strong double act, and Susannah Fielding’s superb performance as Mrs Sullen brings out the serious (and, for the time, unexpected) message about the perils of loveless marriages. I also particularly enjoyed Globe regular Pearce Quigley’s humorous, deadpan turn as the put-upon servant; in fact the whole production was not unlike a Globe one (except for Lizzie Clachan’s impressively elaborate set), complete with musical interludes and a jig at the end. I found the whole thing very funny, a highlight being Foigard, the French priest, who is actually an Irish priest called MacShane and whose French accent keeps slipping hilariously into broad Irish.
With a complex plot, I found the piece originally hard to follow but as time went on I managed to see where everything fit in. The cast handled the Restoration language with aplomb, and the farcical second half, which sees characters running about in all directions, was particularly funny. The ending tidied everything up neatly in a hugely satisfying conclusion. I do like a good Restoration comedy, but even if you think it isn’t for you, give it a go – you might be surprised.